Junction City aiming to bounce back in 2024

The last few seasons have been tough ones for Junction City with the Dragons failing to qualify for the regional tournament in the last two years.

Junction City enters the 2024 season with a young team, but one that has more experience than last year

“It’s been good,” said Junction City coach Joe Paul Hammett of the Dragons’ preseason practices. “We’ve had several days in the last couple of weeks where we’ve been able to get outside. We’re progressing. We’ve had some good practices and some bad practices. 

“That’s one of the things we’re really working on is having good practices every day. We’re not there, but we’re working at it. We’re young. We’ve got two seniors and one that’s been here for four years. We’re predominantly freshmen and sophomores. We got a lot of experience last year at just about every position and those guys are back this year.”

The Dragons, who host a jamboree on Saturday and open the season at Taylor on Monday, will have plenty of shifting around the infield given that all four will be expected to log innings on the mound as well.

At first base, sophomores Caden Sims and Cameron Davis are competing for playing time.

“We’ve got a pretty good battle going on there,” Hammett said.

The Dragons also have sophomores at second base with Jaxon Temple and Joe Thompson competing.

Senior Beaux Maxey and sophomore Jaxxon Caldwell are candidates to play at shortstop with the latter also in the mix to play at second base.

“Both of those guys are competing well,” Hammett said. “It just depends on who is pitching who actually will play there.”

Junior Cole Maxey and freshman Nehemiah Caldwell are battling at third base.

Freshman Jeremiah King could provide depth on the infield for the Dragons.

At catcher, sophomore Graden Hanry and senior Ian Girard are competing for playing time. Taylen Owens, a junior, gives the Dragons a third candidate once his basketball commitment ends.

“He’s been working hard to get better at the position,” Hammett said of Hanry. “He (Girard) is familiar with everything, so that is a plus. We have a little depth there, so that should help us.”

Hammett said finding depth on the infield will be crucial with several members serving on the pitching staff.

“We really need two guys at every spot because our infield positions are filled with our top four pitchers,” Hammett said.

In the outfield, Thompson and freshman Jose Olvera are working in left field.

Adrian Perry, also a freshman, is competing in center field with Caldwell.

“He’s doing a pretty good job,” Hammett said of Perry. “He sees the ball pretty good off the bat. He’s got soft hands.” 

In right field, junior Justin Johnson returns from last year with freshman Austin Mariche and senior Dovonte’ Grimes competing for playing time.

The pitching staff returns intact from last year and Hammett said Beaux Maxey has worked diligently on his craft during the offseason.

“He definitely has the most experience,” Hammett said. “He’s picked up some speed. He’s worked really hard in the offseason on arm strength. 

“He’s our hardest thrower with his fastball around 83, 84 (mph) and he’s developed a curveball, slider. If he’s on, it will be a day that he can keep us in the ballgame and give us a chance to win for sure.” 

Cole Maxey has also logged plenty of innings over the last two years for the Dragons.

“He’s pitched for two years, so he has a lot of experience,” Hammett said. “He probably has got the best arm of our pitching staff, probably 80, 81 fastball and he’s also developed his offspeed pitches.”

Temple was the starter for the Dragons in their extra-inning loss to Parkers Chapel last year.

“He’s really a finesse pitcher,” Hammett said. “He’s not going to overpower you, but he’s good at hitting his spots and he has a good curveball, decent fastball. 

“He pitched some good games until he injured his shoulder last year, so hopefully he picks up where he left off. We’re definitely counting on him to help us get to where we want to go.”

Like Temple, Sims won’t overpower hitters, but commands the strike zone.

“Definitely a finesse pitcher,” Hammett said. “He doesn’t throw very hard, but he’s always been a guy that we can count on to throw strikes. In any league, that’s the name of the game. You’ve got to throw strikes to compete. If you walk a bunch, you’re in trouble.”

Hammett believes the pitching staff will be a strength for the Dragons.

“Hopefully it will be one of our strong suits because the four guys that pitched the majority of the time last year are all back,” Hammett said. “That should be one of our strengths.”

Many successful teams have been strong up the middle defensively, and Hammett said that has been his philosophy as well.

“My philosophy has always been is you’ve got to have a good catcher, good pitchers, second, shortstop and center field,” Hammett said. “If you have got those things up the middle and then other guys in other positions that are adequate, you can compete with people. Hopefully that’s what we’ll have this year.” 

A year ago, the Dragons had a plethora of freshmen get a wealth of experience playing on the varsity squad, and Hammett said that will be beneficial for his team.

“We were super young last year with having so many freshmen playing on the varsity, which is only going to help us this year because they got acclimated to high school baseball,” Hammett said. “We’re coming along. Truthfully, in the past, unless you were a top-notch guy, you probably had to spend a couple of years down there before you even got on the field. 

“We’re on the upswing. We’re still going to have some ups and downs just being so young and not having a lot of older, experienced guys for the young ones to look up to. We are ahead of last year just from the fact that we know a little bit of what’s going on. 

“We don’t have to spend every second going over something that we’ve been over a bunch of times. 

“They pick up on it pretty quick and go with it. Just being a year older, a little stronger, a little faster, it’s going to help us in the long run. I believe you have got to play to get better, and we definitely will do that.”

As far as the conference is concerned, Hammett said the league should be tough as usual.

“I would say it’s the toughest conference in the state,” Hammett said. “Woodlawn has won the last three state championships and we beat them 2019, so with them being in the conference, they’re always going to be good, and I expect them to be pretty good this year. They lost most of their pitching, but they have some good juniors, so they’re going to be tough. 

“Parkers Chapel has got everybody back except one kid they lost, so they’ve got the ingredients to be a very good ballclub. Fordyce, all of those juniors are seniors this year, and they’ve been playing for four years, so you know they’re going to be tough. 

“Rison has several coming back, and they had a decent club last year. You never know about Gurdon, and Ouachita always fields a competitive team, so top to bottom on paper, every time you play, it’s going to be a tough match. You better be ready to go. Not having a district tournament, conference games have always been important, but they’re a little more important now.”

For the Dragons to have success, Hammett said preparation and learning from mistakes will be big factors. 

“The keys to our success this year will be learning how to prepare and getting ready for a game and then outworking everybody else,” Hammett said. “To the field part, being able to compete and learning from our mistakes. We’re still at that stage where we’ll make a mistake and then we might make it again. We just got to get better at that. 

“I think our attitude will have a lot to say about how we do this year. Chemistry is very important any time you’re trying to do something. We had a tough season last year and the year before. 

“We’re trying to get back to where we were, so hopefully our attitude and chemistry is better, and that will lead to playing better baseball and winning and losing will take care of itself.” 

Upcoming Events